Conservative Council Blues

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2012 Local Government Elections

Hate and Misogyny in the Air

As the 2012 local government elections approached, I was feeling quite apprehensive about my electoral prospects. Criticism of Council had focused almost 100% on the Mayor Val. However, as a progressive councillor, I knew I would receive my fair share of electoral pain.

The hatred of Val was quite unfair, but I knew this sort of thing could be part and parcel of politics. After all, the Mayor becomes a public face for the council.

However, inside Council, there were the Conservative councillors who opposed Val and wanted to see her defeated. There were also some disloyal staff members with Conservative connections who were undermining her.

Misinformation Reigns

Opposition to Val was fomented by the Deputy Mayor and others in the media, who opposed the Cairns Entertainment Precinct. The project was lied about and demonised so often that it became the focal point of discontent.

Meanwhile, the misogynistic campaigns from elderly twisted and bitter white males in the community continued. Moreover, the radio talk back and the tabloid Cairns Post never gave Mayor Val a chance, and spewed hatred at every opportunity.

Cairns Regional Council: Opponents Emerge

The various forces of discontent coalesced as the election drew closer. Two opposition teams prepared to reap the benefits of this discontent. First, Deputy Mayor Cochrane formed her team early on to run against the mayor. The second was the Unity Team, a re- incarnation of the ticket which had governed Cairns for eight years prior to 2008 under Kevin Byrne.

It was clear to me that Val did not have a chance, but she decided to run again anyway. She must have thought she had a chance, given her professional conduct in office. However, media coverage always trumps performance in office and I saw she would lose well in advance.

The left-leaning divisional candidates had no interest in joining a team under Val. As a result, Val re-contested her position as an independent. Running for Mayor on your own, without a team behind you, is a mammoth task – even if you are popular. I have never seen such a strategy succeed, especially not in the Cairns region. You cannot win without the support of a team.

Tanya and Leigh

As an experienced political figure in the city, I did my best to support two other independent candidates, Leigh Dall’Osto in Division 2 and Tanya Brooks-Cooper in Division 8.

Both women were highly capable and would have made excellent Councillors. However, it was a very misogynistic time. Looking back it is hard to believe how anti-woman the sentiment in the community was.

Women Attacked

The Prime Minister of the time was Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott was attacking her at every opportunity. Some Abbott supporters pretended gender was not a part of their attack, but the reality was otherwise. To demonstrate the hatred Abbott supporter, Alan Jones from Radio 2GB, suggested that Gillard be put into a chaff bag and chucked into the ocean. Such was the level of malice towards female leaders.

At a polling booth at Bayview Heights, I saw angry, elderly white men walking in to vote – often with their wives following dutifully behind them – all determined to get rid of our first ever female Mayor.

It was clear that Bob Manning’s Unity Team was the most popular with voters. My opponent in Division 3 was a likeable gentleman by the name of Ian Hodge. He had door- knocked the whole area and was going to be very hard to beat.

A Landslide and a New Mayor

On the night of the election, it only took a few minutes to work out that Mayor Val had been slaughtered at the polls and Bob Manning would be the next Mayor of Cairns.

Early in the night, it appeared the result of the race in Division 3 of Cairns Regional Council would be close. The first polling booth was counted and the vote split almost evenly. However, the first booth had been from quite a wealthy part of the area. When the vote started to come in from lower-income neighbourhoods, particularly with higher Indigenous populations, I moved ahead. I ended up winning relatively comfortably.

I was happy that people could see where my heart was. As a local Councillor, I had always supported the battlers in the suburbs of White Rock and Woree. I cared greatly for those doing it tough, particularly our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I loved championing the cause of the underdog, those who nearly always lacked a voice in government.

Unity Domination

My friend Leigh Dall’Osto lost in Division 2 and Tanya Brooks- Cooper lost in Division 8, despite a frustrating close race.

The former Douglas Shire area re-elected Julia Leu. Julia and I were therefore the only progressive councillors elected. Consequently this made it clear the Unity Team had the numbers, with the Mayor and 7 of the 10 divisions. As a result, I had to accept that I would not play as significant a role now as I had on the Val Schier Council.

However, my greatest fear was for the future of the city-shaping Cairns Entertainment Precinct. Bob Manning had campaigned against it; however, I maintained the hope that once he saw the benefits it offered Cairns, he would support the project.

I was proud of the achievements of the Cairns Regional Council of 2008 to 2012 and the work I had done in my local community.

The Manning Council

A fresh election saw the people elect the following Cairns Councillors in 2012:

  • Division 1. Steve Brain
  • Division 2. John Schilling
  • Division 3. Rob Pyne
  • Division 4. Terry James
  • Division 5. Ritchie Bates
  • Division 6. Linda Cooper
  • Division 7. Max O’Halloran
  • Division 8. Jesse Richardson
  • Division 9. Greg Fennell
  • Division 10. Julia Leu

Mayor: Bob Manning

The only two progressives elected were myself (Independent Labor) and Julia Leu (Independent Green).

When there were divisions on the Manning Council, the vote would always split 8:2. Julia Leu and myself on one side and the remaining Unity-dominated Councillors on the other. Division was usually around issues of inappropriate development, the environment and protecting our unique tropical lifestyle. Julia and I, saw eye-to-eye on many things, whereas the new Councillors had a different perspective.

Social Environmental Score Card

The previous Schier administration had introduced social and environmental selection criteria for every agenda item that came before Cairns Regional Council. This assessment involved reporting on the projected impact of each agenda item, considering issues such as climate change (fossil fuel emissions) and the contribution to social sustainability in Cairns.

When a new Councillor proposed that the environmental and social criteria be removed (as a consideration on Council agenda items), it signalled a real value statement by the new Council. It was a step backwards for sustainability. The resolution was passed despite opposition from Cr. Julia Leu and myself.

Balloon Ban Rejected

I was distressed by the fact that balloons kill marine life and do so much damage to the environment, so I was happy to move a balloon ban for public areas that council controlled. I could not believe it when conservative councillors killed my reform. 

Death of the Precinct

The coordinator of the Cairns Entertainment Precinct project was a woman by the name of Linda Cardew. Small in stature, but huge in capability, she was an amazing champion of her project.

Not long after the election, Linda made a presentation to Bob Manning and the new Council, outlining the business case for the Cairns Entertainment Precinct, including the fact that the capital funding was overwhelmingly coming from state and federal government. 

After seeing a presentation that could be described as compelling, it was clear the project was beneficial in every way including the triple bottom line. The Mayor said, “You might want to go away and think about what you said and come back with a different presentation next week”. To her credit, Linda came back next week with the exact same presentation. I admired her courage and commitment.

When the Cairns Entertainment Precinct vote came to Council, the Council Officer advice to proceed was defeated with only Cooper, Leu and Pyne in support. Bob Manning’s two most loyal and conservative Councillors, Terry James and John Schilling then put a motion to kill off the project. It was passed 7:3 and that was the end of the Cairns Entertainment Precinct. Within a few weeks, CEO Lynn Russell and Linda Cardew had left council for good. 

While the decision to kill off the Cairns Entertainment Precinct destroyed careers within Council, the greatest cost was to the city itself. And a major piece of infrastructure that would have shaped the face of Cairns and all the funding was lost forever. This also meant an end to other associated infrastructure, such as the Grafton Street car park, the White’s Shed restoration and the beatification project, The Greening of Grafton. It was devastating.

Spectacled Flying Fox

Cairns City was privileged to be the home of one of the few remaining colonies of Spectacled Flying-Fox (pteropus conspicillatus). The endangered animal gets its name from the pale yellow or straw-colored fur around its eyes, which give it a bespectacled appearance. 

Mayor manning chose eliminating the flying fox from the city area as one of his major priorities. Unsurprisingly, I had a different view and was keen to raise my voice in support of the Spectacled Flying- Fox.

It was a sad indictment on the local community of the day that the mayor probably had a popular support in his campaign. I was ridiculed from several quarters, including the local newspaper, who at the time labelled me as Batman.

I grimly believed these animals were an asset to our city. For me it was not just a matter of protecting is important mammal native mammals, I also believed that having the flying fox in the city was a benefit to tourism. There was never an afternoon you did not see many tours filming the bats mass exodus from the city. 

Alas this was another battle I was to lose. But who knows? Humans have only lived in Cairns in the current built form for hundred years or so. Maybe one day the bats will come back to reclaim a habitat that is rightfully theirs.